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The Forest For The Trees (Activist Version)

The amazing story of the fight to clear Earth First! activist Judi Bari's name after her car was bombed and she was arrested as a terrorist.

A printer-friendly version of this page 57 minutes
Directed by Bernadine Mellis
Produced by Redbird Films
Executive Producers: Judith Helfand and Julia Parker Benello
Editor: Susan Korda
Music: Jodi Berggren

"A powerful and elegant document, beautifully done." Howard Zinn, historian
THE FOREST FOR THE TREES is an intimate look at an unlikely team of young activists and old civil rights workers who come together to battle the U.S. government.

Filmmaker Bernadine Mellis is the daughter of 68-year-old civil rights lawyer Dennis Cunningham. Dennis started out his career representing the Black Panthers and the Weathermen.

Judi Bari was an Earth First! leader who was one of the first to place as much importance on timber workers' lives and families as she did on the legacy and future of the trees. But that strategic relationship was too much of a threat. Her car was bombed in 1990, and three hours later, she was arrested as a terrorist--charges that were later dropped. Convinced it was a ploy by the FBI to discredit her and Earth First!, Judi decided to sue.

Cunningham took on Judi's case and after 12 years, Judi Bari v. the FBI finally gets a court date. Knowing this is one of her father's most important cases, Mellis is there at strategy meetings, at breakfast, driving to and from the court, documenting her morally driven, very tired dad. Not your typical "Take your daughter to work day," THE FOREST FOR THE TREES offers access into a unique father-daughter relationship, the painfully short yet extraordinary life of Judi Bari, and a piece of U.S. history that everyday grows increasingly resonant as once again the lines between dissent and terrorism are being intentionally blurred.

Note: This is a completely reworked version of the award-winning 2004 film of the same name. See the filmmaker's note below.

"I completed a version of THE FOREST FOR THE TREES as my master's thesis from Temple University in 2004. While that film was the same length as the final cut, and essentially followed the same story, it was quite a different film. It was my first documentary, and I was producer, director, shooter and editor, learning everything about the process as I did it. I submitted the film to festivals, and it showed at several (as listed here). Soon after finishing it, in early 2005, I went to the Working Films/MASS MoCA Documentary Residency, designed to help filmmakers develop outreach strategies for social justice films. There, I was encouraged to re-open the film by Judith Helfand (BLUE VINYL), who later became one of the Executive Producers of THE FOREST, along with Julia Parker Benello. Judith felt that if I brought in an editor, I could bring the film to a new level.

Then, in the summer of 2005, Chicken & Egg Pictures was founded by Judith Helfand, Julia Parker Benello, and Wendy Ettinger in order to support emerging and veteran women filmmakers. Chicken & Egg provided the support to hire an editor, Susan Korda. Working closely with Judith, Susan and I spent several months re-editing the film. The old cut was divided into two parts: The first half was about Judi Bari, her organizing work in the Redwoods, the bombing of her car, and the FBI and Oakland Police's arrest of her and Darryl Cherney. The second half followed Judi's civil case against the FBI, and the legal team who fought that battle, which included my father, Dennis Cunningham, as lead attorney. What Judith Helfand pushed me to do was to integrate those two stories, and to foreground my father's role a bit more, teasing out some of the richness of the father-daughter element of the film.

Making the first cut was a personal victory for me (there were times I was not at all convinced I would be able to finish it), and it was a hugely important step in the process. Ultimately, the new film, enabled by the awesome support of the women of Chicken & Egg, feels like the true realization of my initial vision, the vision that drove me to begin shooting in the first place." Bernadine Mellis

Grade Level: 10-12, College, Adult
US Release Date: 2006     Copyright Date: 2006

"[I was] enormously moved. It is a powerful and eloquent document, beautifully done. It brings Judi Bari and the movement to life, and does a superb job on the trial itself...[Dennis Cunningham's] final statement to the jury was a model for such a thing -- warm, human, simple, persuasive. The film itself is so inspiring I hope it will be seen widely."
Howard Zinn, historian

"An engaging and highly personal tale... Bernadine Mellis tells Bari's story with what is clearly admiration. We see a brave woman whose dedication to the lives of trees inspired even loggers! The film's focus on Bari's court case brings together the often separate worlds of politics and environmental science... [The Forest for the Trees] will serve as a starting point for discussions on how difficult it is to turn environmental awareness into political change. The film is full of information but also raises many questions, it is factual but it also moved me to tears, it made me angry but in the end left me inspired.... a powerful film about a powerful woman, her dedication to the environment, and her allegiance with dedicated lawyers who protected her rights. I will use this film in my science class and pass it on to my political science colleagues. It needs to get out there."
Dr Katherine Flynn, Biology Department and Environmental Studies Program, Adelphi University

"At the heart of the film is Bari herself, a true folk hero with an electrifying on-screen presence."
Sonoma Valley Film Festival program notes

"As the story unfolds to its dramatic ending, this film provides unparalleled insight into threats to civil rights in the context of environmental issues."
Ashland Independent Film Festival program notes

"[The Forest for the Trees] does a great job of portraying Judi's strength and conviction... I would highly recommend this film to anyone who cares about justice, the FBI's misdeeds, redwood forests, Earth First! and/or Judi Bari herself."
Jim Flynn, Earth First!er and former Earth First! Journal editor

"The Forest for the Trees is wonderfully done: well-paced, thought-provoking and moving. It is a love letter to Bari and to Cunningham and a testament to perseverance and fighting the good fight."
Jessica Cogan, Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

"Shines a worthy light on the folks whose street-level legal legwork helps to preserve civil and human rights... Mellis' access to behind-the-scenes legal strategizing is fascinating, and her ode to her principled, passionate parent is well-deserved."
Marc Mohan, The Oregonian

"Oral history at its finest... The Forest for the Trees captures the lawyer and his team with their guard down, allowing a look behind the brave fronts that the men present to the press and the courtroom... Haunting footage of Bari's speeches and interviews prior to her death are interwoven to great effect, and imbue the tale with a sense of urgency and poignancy. Forest for the Trees is the gem of the Northwest Film Center's Human Rights on Film series."
Willamette Week Online

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The producer's website

Awards and Festivals
New Version
Grand Prize, Green Film Festival in Seoul
Silver Plaque, HUGO Television Awards, Chicago
Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, New York
Vermont International Film Festival
Mendocino Film Festival
Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival
Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

2004 Version
Best Documentary, Tiburon Film Festival
Best Short Documentary, Brooklyn Arts Council
Audience Award for Best Documentary Short, Santa Cruz Film Festival
Aspiring Filmmaker Award, Mountain Film Festival
Best Student Film, Ashland Independent Film Festival
Planet in Focus, Toronto International Environmental Film Festival
Sonoma Valley Film Festival
Big Muddy Film Festival

American Studies
Environmental Ethics
Human Rights
Social Psychology
Women's Studies

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... more Reviews

"As current as today's headlines... Classes in social sciences can utilize [The Forest for the Trees] as a case study for further examination of individual rights..."
School Library Journal

"Recommended... Ms. Mellis presents a well-balanced piece showing both the side of the activists as well as the logging industry... College and university libraries with programs in environmental studies, human rights and sociology would benefit from having [The Forest for the Trees] in their collection."
Ronald Saskowski Jr., Educational Media Reviews Online

"DOCUMENTARY MUST-SEE...Agree or disagree with Earth First and its tactics, all people need to be wary about how - and with what evidence - citizens are fingered by the government for prosecution. Ultimately, the film is a vindication for those who harbor ideas and methodologies looked on with suspicion by the government."

"[The Forest for the Trees] tells a rare, emotional story...POWERFUL documentary...This emotionally charged film isn't a run-of-the-mill propaganda film."
Montana Kaimin

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